Review Summary: Pumpkinland 2014
I've woken up in Pumpkinland and the year is 2014. I'm not all that sure how I got here really. My immediate memories are a hazy blur of disinterested meanderings between an unfulfilling, dwindling social life and a menial job that feels like so much less than was promised to me just a few short years ago upon recieving that pristine, sharp-edged diploma, which now collects dust in some distant parental basement. Why am I here in Pumpkinland, part of this physical representation of Billy Corgan's tortured inner psyche, all of the sudden? Shouldn't I be withering away in reality still? Fraughtfully continuing my suffocation via the shrinking of the world, of the self, choking to death on the increasingly immediate accessibility of, well, just about everything? Navigating a sea of modern music that feels overwhelming, full of gems but devoid of stars? I ask these questions internally, and suddenly realize: Billy Corgan has something to say, once again, something to impart to a world that seems less and less willing to listen. And here I am, listening to someone who seems so desperate to be listened to.
Pumpkinland is an interesting place in 2014. It's laced with 90's nostalgia, perhaps burgeoned by the plethora of unearthed material found in the many album reissues as of late. Stars dot the sky. The only times in Pumpkinland are dawn and twilight. It's largely abandoned, a safehaven once populated by many #True90sKids. What's left? Goddesses named Porcelina and Ruby and Starla and Daphne are still there, fighting off demons who screech "love is suicide." Corgan's fallen bandmates drift around the contours like ghouls. I see them in the shadows- Jimmy is distant, with telling half smile. D'arcy's a total wreck- I can't even look. Mikey still appears to be fifteen years old and just barely isn't. Nicole is still hot. James didn't bother to show up. They're flanking the path I'm stand standing on, which, in its golden hue, begs me onward, onward- toward the horizon.
I walk for what feels like miles before I come upon three figures in the road. Each is a recent version of Mr. Corgan himself. They look at me in anticipation- "are you here to see the new incarnation?" they say in unison. It's creepy as ***. "We've all been trying so hard to bring Pumpkinland back into the conciousness of the masses. But each time we're lacking something essential, something vital." The first of the Corgans steps forward- rail thin and decked out in all stripes, this Billy looks poised, excited, energetic and younger than the other two. He's ready to move. He's composed of nothing but hollow metal, though, I soon notice. Designed to look human, but essentially robotic. I realize that his must be the Zeitgeist era Billy. He tells me that, when it was his time, he was arrogant enough to think that the world would greet him with unabashed adoration and love, simply in response to his mere presence. He wouldn't even have to try. Surging with the overconfidence that led him to believe people would buy seven slightly different versions of the same album, he brought them untampered energy and excess, blazing riffs and faux political posturing delivered with alternative metal muscle and million-Billy choruses. There was something there, to be sure, but it lacked sentiment. It lacked passion. It lacked feeling. This Billy could have worked, if he only had a heart.
The second Billy- he's older, more ghoulish. He has bristly, ill-suited stubble and vitriol lurking somewhere in there that he would never spew on a recording but only bitterly at fans displeased with his previous incarnation. He's wearing a very stupid looking scarf, and there's something missing behind his eyes, and his jaw hangs aslack. He looks utterly vacant, simply clueless, but inside he's reeling from a harsh dose of reality that he's slowly struggling to wrap his mind around. This is the early Teargarden Billy. He tells me that, somewhere between 2007 and 2009, he realized where he went wrong with Zeitgeist. That he totally spaced on the dynamics that mad the songs of earlier, younger, hairier MTV-darling Billy's so loved. That the last Billy had forgotten how grand the Pumpkins always seemed to sound, how genuinely easy they were to connect with. And, recoiling from the snubbing he was given from both the public and the diehards, and the loss of a seemingly life-long musical partner, he set off on a new journey, muttering imprecations disgustedly under his breath. He thought he would show them all with the biggest, grandest, most incomprehensibly massive project ever- a 44 song album, released one song at a time over the course of four years. It was to be a majestic and sprawling- the same old grand Pumpkins, somehow re-imagined and packaged for a culture whose attention could only be measured in nanoseconds. However, the project started off miserably- Early Teargarden Billy wrote with heart, but made all the wrong calculations in the studio, lost track of time, and did baffling things, like hiring a teenager as a drummer. The plans were in place, but they lacked execution. He failed to make the proper, smart choices, despite having so many other things in place. Oh, if he only had a brain.
And the final Billy- this one is likable. He appears to have calmed down after accepting the failings of the other two. There's apology written all over his face, but it's an apology armored with a solution to make things right. The Oceania Billy steps forward. He's wearing clothes that don't fit him- a surprisingly protruding belly hangs forward over his pants, and his ankles are showing. When he turns his head, the skin on his neck bunches up into pudgy flabs. It's almost kind of hard to imagine Corgan's iconic whines and snarls coming from this corpulent fellow, but in 2012, they rang forth truer than the two predecessors. The Oceania Corgan smiles and explains how the two previous versions got so much wrong. How, in attempting to redeem one error, they created another. He says that he reigned in the Teargarden project and re-evaluated his plans to include cohesive albums-witin-albums, or some such nonsense that managed to work out somehow. Oceania was the answer needed at the time, it was confident and tasteful and well done, mostly worthy of the praise it got. But there were problems that uncoiled themselves over the years. The album-witin-the-album was comprised of songs that, while good, never managed to sink their teeth in. In lieu of a bite, there were awkward moments of circus synth and cringey lyrics about wildflowers, Special K, and God. At times, the music just felt bloated and limp. Soft. It was written with adequate sentiment, it was smartly done, but it begged for some energy, some ***ing balls. It could have been so much more, had Oceania Billy only had a bit of courage.
I'm significantly weirded out by these three blatant personifications surrounding me. I always look forward to new Smashing Pumpkins material, perhaps giving credence to the idea that flailing, directionally-impaired 20-somethings are just as angsty as cliche agsty teens, but in all my fandom, what warrants this kind of experience? This Wizard of Oz / Pumpkins crossover bull***? Simply unprecedented. I begin to protest, to ask these three Billy's why the hell I'm here in Pumpkinland, when suddenly, the sky cracks open and what I automatically know to be the next Billy begins his descent. Dressed in all black clothes that actually fit, he drifts the the ground, sending up a plume of dust. The other three Billy's fall down on their knees before him, reverent to his presence. Monuments to an Elegy Billy stands before me, stupid scarf billowing in the wind. Descending now, to stand alongside him is a tall dark haired guy, who I soon realize to be Tommy Lee, proving you never know who the *** you'll run into in Pumpkinland.
Monuments to an Elegy Billy is still pretty girthy, and he looks tired from his descent, but he wastes little more time on introductions. He begins speaking almost immediately. His voice, and probably singing, is sharper, clearer, more confident and impassioned than that of any of the predecessors that have appeared before me today. He tells me good evening, and thanks me for joining him here in Pumpkinland, which he expects to be much more crowded in the coming weeks. He tells me that he's spent two years working out the kinks, and that he's confident he has done it: that he has created an album that surges with freshness and energy and passion, perhaps more than any album in his past. He describes a song named "Tiberius", which is simply the best song to open any Pumpkins album, ever, and the best thing he has done in years. It opens with a soft piano melody before surging with his most tactful synth work yet, until it stops on a dime to billow the listener over with some seriously powerful riffage. And then there's "Anaise!" which carries a funky bass groove that manages to feel distinctly Pumpkins, despite the glaring lack of funkyness in their prior work. He talks about "One and All" for a really long time, then, about how it will make you swear it's 1993 and you're all depressed and wearin' the best, rattiest flannel and most eloquently frayed blue jeans, and you're to go see Nirvana play show or something. Then there's "Anti-Hero", the pop rock song you'd never expect him to write, but he writes it anyway, and the stand-out "Drum + Fife," which he attributes to Tommy Lee, here. He then says that the songs have trimmed all the fat, that they each surge forward quickly, presenting their strongest ideas and then ushering themselves out. He boasts that every song here could be a single, from the emotional, "1979"-esque "Dorian" to the feel-good 80's synth throwback "Run2Me," which seems to purposefully flirt with the realm of awful just to prove how close he can tread the line between downright cringe and catchy inspiration. It's all pretty appealing, and I want to hear it more and more as he talks. He promises that its the most energetic thing he has made in years, that it isn't boring for a second, that it goes places I'd never expect, that he sounds closer to thirty years old on it than to fifty. And then, with a smile on his face, he says, "What do you think of that, huh Pumpkins fan? I'm more free than I've been in years, and I made a pretty sick sounding album, dont you think?"
There we in Pumpkinland, standing in the middle of this big, golden road. We obviously aren't at the main destination it seems to be leading to, that mysterious place, whatever, wherever it may be. The other three Billy incarnations are still on their knees, weeping- they've been part of another great reinvention. The wind falls to a still. As great as this album sounds, I realize something, though- this Billy, he's only about 5 ' 5 " or 6 "- all the other ones are well over six foot.
"It.... it does sound great, Billy. But... why are you so short? Like, if these other Billy's are albums, you're like, at best an EP. You're like a kinda fat EP, really... seems like you might leave a lot to be desired."
Monuments Billy takes it in stride. In fact, the sharp glimmer in his eyes, as they turn toward the celestial, tells me he may have been expecting this. "Good show, kid," he smirks. The sky of Pumpkinland begins to shift- from the dawn into the twilight... "but the real answer to that fear will have to be answered with the procession of... Day for Night."